It’s the time of year when your Facebook friends post this mea culpa: “Please forgive me if I’ve wronged you in any way over the last year.”
Maybe this blanket plea is your tradition, too. Or maybe you call someone you believe you’ve wronged and ask for forgiveness.
Maybe you’re thinking about how you’ve behaved in the past year, asking yourself how you can be a better person.
The season of repentance is here, reaching its height on the Day of Atonement, which this year begins at sundown on Oct. 8. But Yom Kippur isn’t a one-day stop-and-shop for forgiveness. In Jewish tradition, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Ten Days of Repentance — is a period of self-betterment, of healing and, of course, repentance.
Even before Rosh Hashanah, Judaism paves the way with slichot prayers seeking forgiveness from God, says Evan Ravski, assistant rabbi at Congregation Olam Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in Fairfax.
That introspection begins in Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, when the shofar is blown each morning to awake Jews that Yom Kippur is fast approaching.
“Rosh Hashanah [marks] the creation of the world,” says Rabbi Amy Sapowith of Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation, in Ashburn. “We have a sense that God is closer to us in this moment and we want to take advantage of that closeness by turning into ourselves and doing the self-work that we need in order to be our best selves.”
At the same time, tradition says that God judges the Jewish people and seals their future on Yom Kippur.
“In that judgment, we understand God is coming with the full force of chesed — of compassion. Because there’s the divine wisdom that if we were judged strictly, nobody would make it,” Sapowith says. “We’re imperfect beings. We were created that way, so we need God’s compassion.”
Two kinds of repentance
There are two types of repentance: One is between ourselves and God. The High Holiday services focus on this kind of repentance.
The other kind is between one person and another. Sins one commits against others must be confronted directly with them. God does not forgive us for the wrong we do to someone else until that person has forgiven us.
“The [days] are meant for introspection, for prayers, as well as for connection between each other to seek forgiveness from other people,” says Ravski.
Confessing to another the wrong you have done and asking them to forgive you can be daunting, but it’s not supposed to be easy, Ravski says. The process is meant to make us challenge ourselves, and reflect on how to become more decent human beings.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Kesher Israel, an Orthodox congregation in Washington, points out the Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah, which means “return.” He says this means that through teshuvah, we are trying to get back to who we really are — people created in God’s image.
“Teshuvah is who we really are,” Shafner says. “Some religions believe that we’re born in a state of sin. Jews believe that we’re born in a state of goodness.”
Having a difficult conversation with someone who has hurt you, or who you have hurt, requires preparation, perhaps through self-reflection, prayer or reading the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, says Shafner. Asking someone for forgiveness also requires humility.
“In Judaism everything takes preparation,” says Shafner. “The High Holidays are not supposed to just be a time of gaining repentance so we can have a good year.”
Sapowith suggests three practices during the Ten Days of Repentance: She advises reading the machzor daily, blowing the shofar, and thinking about a person who you feel has hurt you. When thinking about that person, call up one memory of something good that person has done.
“When you see that person again, and you try to respond to them while keeping that good thing in mind, you are actually creating space for them to change if they want to.”
In that way, Sapowith says, we can help people to mature spiritually and ethically. Then, we have to do it for ourselves.
“It’s hard to let other people grow because it can mean that you have to change, too,” she adds. “Sometimes we unwittingly keep people back. But this is a practice that focuses on goodness being the true self.”
Shafner has his own suggestions: “I sometimes tell people, if in the synagogue you’re not inspired, go to the park and sit for half an hour, and reflect on your life. It’s not like if you say these [prayers] God’s going to forgive you. It’s an internal process.”
Knock three times
But how do we choose who to ask forgiveness from, and how do we do the asking?
Ravski says everyone has to decide for themselves but, he says, “I don’t think we should pick and choose what we seek repentance for.”
As in any human interaction, becoming vulnerable opens a person to rejection. So what if you make your preparations, and apologize fully and humbly, without excuses … and the other person rejects you?
It isn’t over, Ravski says. Tradition says you must return to the person two more times. If after three attempts at contrition, the other person is unmoved, you have done your part in attempting teshuvah.
Sometimes, a person simply isn’t ready for your apology, Sapowith says, adding that these three attempts can happen over a long period, even years.
On the other hand, if someone hurts you, and you hold a grudge against them, Shafner says you are obligated to confront that person.
Ravski says reaching out with a text message or through social media doesn’t show the same thoughtfulness as a face-to-face conversation. Talking in person “shows your promise that you’ll try to be better in the future.”
The High Holiday liturgy says that God remembers “all that is forgotten.” But in our relationships with others, should we ask others to forgive us for offenses we don’t remember committing?
Shafner says no. “What does that mean? I don’t think it’s about me. It’s about them wanting to have a good Yom Kippur.”
Ravski thinks it defeats the purpose of taking time to stop and think about our relationships.
But Sapowith says she and her friends sometimes call with this type of apology. Because if you’re supposed to confront someone who wronged you, the message can create an opening for healing.
“If you harbor a grudge and somebody doesn’t know that you harbor a grudge, you are obligated to bring it up, because how else are you going to get rid of it?” Sapowith says. “There are instances where you may have done something without knowing it, and somebody brings it up.”
The High Holidays are not the only time of year people should be reflecting and repenting. But these 10 days, and the mindset that accompanies them, are a good place to start.